How to save a life
Small, actionable steps that make a world of difference to someone struggling with suicide.
I recently wrote about a few things you can do if you struggle with suicidal thoughts and depression. Suicide is a topic that is often just as difficult for the loved ones of someone struggling with mental health challenges, so I wanted to offer my thoughts on things you can do to help a friend, partner, child or family member pull through to the other side.
I’m no expert, but I have a wealth of personal experience. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health emergency, you can call 988 in the United States. There’s also a great list of resources here.
Here’s my list.
#1 Ask point blank if they are suicidal.
This feels like an uncomfortable question to ask and like it will result in a high likelihood of a disingenuous answer, but let me tell you why this is a helpful question.
First, it will catch most people off guard, and you’ll be able to catch them in a moment of honesty. Many people struggling with thoughts of suicide want to tell someone but don’t know how and don’t want to be a burden. Secondly, this question shows you care enough to ask. When I was suicidal, I thought I would have been leaving the world better off without me in it. Asking sends the signal that they would definitely go amiss.
This question can save their life.
If the answer to this question is “yes,” help them make a safety plan, be there for them if they need to reach out, follow up with them, etc.
The most important thing you can do is tell them how much you love them and how much you would miss them if they were gone. One of the people who contributed to saving my life did this — I really credit her for my being here today.
#2 Cultivate good listening and discernment skills.
The worst part about being depressed was the horrible brain fog that came with it. As I’ve spoken with my friends who have dealt with depression and suicidal ideation, we’ve all expressed a similar pain point: It seems no one is listening or understands us.
Part of it is, indeed, the brain fog, but learning how to be a patient, non-judgmental listener can really help someone who is struggling feel heard. Here are some core skills of a good listener:
Validate and don’t judge. Chances are the person you are talking to is participating in behaviors you don’t like or approve of. You might even find some of their behaviors immoral. This is particularly true for people who are self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and risky behaviors to deal with their pain. Look past what they do and focus on who they are, who they can become, and the pain they are in.
Ask lots of questions. Frequently, those struggling with mental illness are stuck in their own thought processes or don’t know how to verbalize their feelings. Sometimes they need their own thoughts questioned. As someone trying to help, you do not know what they are going through — even if you went through something similar yourself. The only way to find out is to ask questions.
Don’t give advice if and until it is really needed. No one ever feels heard when people just launch into giving advice, regardless of how well-meaning it actually is. Asking questions, trying to understand the situation, and setting aside your biases will provide you with a better idea of how you can help and if your advice is needed or welcome.
#3 Be the friend that makes them do stuff.
Listening is helpful, but sitting and stewing in your feelings and beating the dead horse can make your feelings worse. Make sure your friend has time to talk and tell you what is going on — ask questions and validate — but don’t let that go on too long.
Sometimes going out and walking in the sunshine, taking your mind off things with a hobby or doing an old past-time can help take someone’s mind off the awful and never-ending spiral of doom that is going through their mind.
It shows them that it’s possible to live life even when things are hard.
There are happy moments even in the worst of times.
It’s possible to overcome challenges.
You love them enough to spend time with them.
#4 Avoid glorifying suicide.
This one seems obvious, but we tend to glorify suicide in a way where the healthy feel like they are memorializing a tragedy, and the ill feel like that’s the only way they’ll be loved — through death. We are enamored by the subject and romanticize it as well. I will see a few people wearing black every April to honor Kurt Cobain’s death. Sir John Everett Millais’ painting of the death of Ophelia is a beautiful, Romantic poster adorning every English major’s dorm room.
In “The Boy Crisis,” Warren Farrell, Ph.D. mentions how often young men (who are at a significantly higher risk of having a successful suicide attempt) will see the memorialization of a suicide death in their community and begin to believe that this kind of love and affection is only attainable through death. These issues are tricky and very sensitive, but if a shocking suicide death (or sudden one) happens in your community, keep the following in mind:
Remember to talk about how much they will be missed and how sad you are that they are gone — not just what a great person they were.
There’s a reason why many obituaries and news stories don’t mention suicide or its details as a cause of death. Unfortunately, suicides tend to cluster within communities. As a rule of thumb, don’t mention methods, places or if it was a successful attempt. There are times and places to talk about those topics, but not if you don’t know what you’re doing.
If you are in a position of authority, offer resources. Reach out to NAMI, local hospitals, and clinics to see if they provide emergency counseling services if a tragedy hits your community.
Whatever you do, have an attitude of reverence towards the deaths of people who died by suicide. Too often, we treat suicide and mental illness as this mystical element in the story of many artists and great thinkers. People like Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Robert Schumann and Mark Rothko all suffered horribly and unnecessarily throughout their lives. Had they had many of today’s interventions, many of them could have lived much longer, much happier lives. Genius does not mean that your life must be cut short.
#5 Help them with the overwhelming tasks.
Every depressed and/or mentally ill person I have ever known has struggled to ask for help. Either because they do not want to be a burden or because they do not know how to ask.
The “let me know what I can do to help!” line is nice but not always helpful when your brain is in a fog. Try showing up at their house, helping them with their dishes, yard work, laundry or running errands. Sometimes just taking one thing off a massive to-do list can make a difference in how someone feels about their outlook.
#6 Cultivate a spiritual practice.
I talked about this in my other article and wanted to bring it up again for some of the same but also many different reasons. Cultivating a strong, consistent, heartfelt spiritual practice will give you a stronger backbone and a better perspective on life and will strengthen you as you help the people you love.
And I want to be clear: When I say you should start a spiritual practice, I do not mean to do some yoga once in a while or plant a tree (although both are great.) I am a big advocate for experimenting with and discovering your beliefs; going to church and being part of a community; and practicing faith in the things you don’t understand.
When developing a spiritual practice, keep these things in mind:
Be part of a spiritual community that meets regularly, expects something out of you and holds you accountable: First, spiritual growth never happens in a vacuum. There’s a reason why people go to church. Secondly, being a part of a spiritual/religious community forces you to be aware of people you wouldn’t normally notice. The people you go to church with are often different than you, and so are the people who live around the location you attend. If someone seems like they aren’t themselves or stops showing up, please check in on them and see if they are okay. You don’t need an agenda, but they might need a friend.
You need to be in tune with your feelings and the wider world. Learning to get in touch with your spirituality will increase your sensitivity to your place in the universe and the people around you.
You need to take care of yourself. Loving someone struggling with suicide and mental health problems takes its toll and breaks your heart. You need your own heart to be cared for and bound up. Rely on your spiritual community and your faith. Seek help and a therapist if you need it. It’s okay to set boundaries.
#7 It’s not your fault.
There are times when no matter what you do, everything fails.
I remember after my suicide attempt in high school, a few of my family members later told me how angry they felt for a long time. They blamed themselves because they worried it was 100% their fault.
It wasn’t. It was a lot of things. Suicides are not monocausal. They happen when people have fewer resources than they do emotional challenges — and those are things that compound over time. Unless you are actively abusing and berating someone who is vulnerable and mentally unwell, you are doing your best to care for your loved one. It matters more than you think it does.
You’ll never know what this means
There are probably hundreds of people who, if I knew their names, I would go back and thank them for the time they took to check in on me when they saw me crying at a train stop, called my parents in high school or were just kind to me when I really needed it. Sometimes you feel like you are just spinning your wheels, but the little things you do daily give someone just one more reason to live.
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